Category Archives: USA

New York Bakers Use Online Tactics To Embarrass Employers

Jesse Eisenberg and Megan Fox love the food, but staff can’t make ends meet

Workers at the Amy’s Bread bakery in New York have gone public about their organising, following a march on Monday. They have demanded a living wage, affordable healthcare and respect at work, but they are fighting for these demands outside of traditional union structures. Rather than seek union recognition, they are aiming to embarrass their employers into accepting their demands using the power of the internet.

Amy’s Bread sell high quality organic “artisanal” baked goods for high prices, and the outlet is known to be a favourite of celebrities such as Megan Fox, Jesse Eisenberg, Meg Ryan and Whoopi Goldberg. But the people who make and prepare those goods don’t take home enough pay to make ends meet, and nurse injuries caused by the company’s lack of investment in their protection.

Ana Rico, an overnight cleaning worker at Amy’s, has described how she’s “in pain all the time”, thanks to the company’s months-long failure to replace a machine for washing trays. Since the old machine broke down, she has scrubbed two hundred trays per night, in “really hot water”, alongside  vacuuming and general cleaning duties. Unpaid overtime is common. Then “Every time that I get home, I have to take pills and use creams”. On top of this, she can’t afford proper medical treatment for the working injuries, because the company’s insurance policy would cost “about half of my [pay] check”. ‘Obamacare’ has clearly done nothing to help the likes of Ana.

A baker who spoke to Salon.com on the condition of anonymity, stated that:

“[…] the need to work quickly and move repeatedly between very hot ovens and very cold freezers (“without jackets”) has caused him to throw out his back and get frequent colds. He said the smoke from cleaning burned dough out of ovens “causes my eyes to burn. And they frequently get very red, and my nose bleeds as well. And I have a lot of pain in my throat as well, and I have muscle pains as well, and especially pain in my hands and wrist.” Because the company wouldn’t buy proof boxes for the bread to rise in, charged the baker, “In order to produce the high-quality bread, we need to often turn off the ventilation in our area.”

The campaign is being organised by the affected workers themselves, in conjunction with an advocacy group called Brandworkers. Founded in 2007 by Industrial Workers of the World member Daniel Gross, the New York-based movement aims to train food production workers in the use of social media and other tools to embarrass employers into compliance with the law and improvement of working conditions.

To that end, the amysbread.brandworkers.org website is asking people to read personal quotes of publicly named Amy’s Bread workers, sign up to support their campaign, and their story on Facebook/Twitter using #WhoMakesAmysBread.

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California Cops Clamp Down on Disneyland Dissent

Broad sections of the Anaheim working class are seething with anger at cops

Disneyland in Anaheim is emblematic of ‘the American dream’ – a make-believe world where ‘good’ always triumphs over ‘evil’ in the end, and childhood innocence lasts forever. Yet at the gates of this fairytale paradise, torrents of anger are being directed at police for the huge amounts of state killings in the area, and the guardians of the rich are responding with ever more militaristic displays of power.

The wave of unrest began ten days ago, when cops shot and killed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz. The chief of police immediately labelled Diaz a “documented gang member”. According to the official version, Diaz and two other men were talking in an alley when police approached them. The men ran, and the officers gave chase, eventually firing at the unarmed Diaz, after he had thrown an object – possibly heroin – onto a roof.

Considering the local circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many of Anaheim’s residents didn’t find Diaz’s supposed ‘gang member’ status a good enough reason to kill him. After, Diaz was the fourth victim of the city’s finest this year alone. He was followed just one day later by 21-year-old Joel Acevedo. As far as gang war death tolls go, five in just seven months is quite prolific.

In the meantime, demonstrators had crowded the lobby of the Anaheim PD, as the chief held a press conference. They chanted “no justice, no peace, fuck the police”, and “cops, pigs, murderers”. And even as authorities moved to seal off the scene, they were met with rocks and bottles. Cops retaliated with rubber bullets, and a savage dog attack on one woman, which they later labelled “accidental”.

Protests simmered throughout the week, before another police shooting – this time non-fatal – on Thursday, when tensions were brought boiling back to the surface. On Sunday, a mass demonstration of several hundred were faced down by mounted cops in riot gear and heavily armed paramilitary-style troopers protecting the police station. An impromptu march towards the tourist haven of Disneyland was headed off by hundreds of security forces. The demonstration was declared an “illegal assembly”, and nine arrests were made.

Despite the obvious groundswell of anger, it is difficult to predict where this new movement is going. Liberal Latino group Presente is trying to channel energy behind a petition for an attorney general inquiry. As the history of policing shows ad nauseam, such an inquiry would inevitably whitewash Anaheim cops.

The scene at Anaheim police HQ on Sunday

Ultimately, the brutal policing in Anaheim, the community’s response to it, and then the authorities’ nervous and draconian reaction all have their roots in the decaying state of American capitalism itself. With Anaheim’s tourism-based economy stagnating since the onset of the economic crisis, official unemployment in the area is currently just under 10% – two per cent above the national average and a huge increase on 2006. The poverty rate is also rising, and is particularly pronounced amongst black and Latino people. With cuts raining down from everywhere, and a new wave of job losses about to crest, the authorities can only offer ever more draconian repression.

An inquiry here or there will never fix the problem of the growing police state. That is something only a massive class conscious movement against the super rich can achieve.

New York Electricity Workers Locked Out Amidst Heatwave

The ConEd lockout perfectly illustrates the irrationality of the profit system

In some ways it’s hard to imagine a more stark illustration of capitalism’s essential irrationality. New York City is currently sweltering through a heatwave, with temperatures in the mid- to late-30s centigrade. As a result, there has been a predictable summer surge in electricity usage, with people scrambling to turn on air conditioning. It is at this point that the Consolidated Edison utilities company has chosen to lock out its 8,500-strong workforce.

This is because ConEd’s priority is not the safe and efficient provision of electricity and gas for its 3.2 million customers. Just as with every business, profit is its bottom line. Last year the $39 billion corporation paid CEO Kevin Burke nearly $12 million, and the entire board of directors won a 20% pay rise. Dividends to shareholders have increased for every single one of the last thirty-eight years. Of course, these riches have to come from somewhere, and ultimately they come from the labour of those skilled workers. But their rate of exploitation is insufficiently high for the board’s liking, so when their contract expired on Sunday, the management pre-empted any picket line rejection of their new ‘offer’.

Under the proposed new contracts, there would be a lower rate for new hires, and the company pension scheme would be slashed in a link up to the (now generally downward) fluctuations of the stock market. Even more seriously than this, employee contributions to their health care plan would increase from $20 per week under the last contract to $133 per family – leaving the average worker many thousands of dollars a year worse off.

Yesterday, a manager found out that scabbing can be dangerous

The cuts are so huge, they seem designed to pick a fight with the workforce. Indeed, ConEd President Craig Ivey was notorious for his union-busting activity at Virginia utility corporation Dominion before he came to ConEd in 2009. The arrival of the new contract deadline is clearly an opportunity for which ConEd’s board have long been preparing – 5,000 scabs are currently operating, including low level managers and often rusty retirees. Yesterday, it was reported that one manager suffered facial burns during an explosion in Upper West Side.

One LibCom blogger has reported that:

“On the picket line, the workers that we spoke to seemed quite aware of the significance of the dispute. Describing management’s attack as a “race to the bottom”, they expressed a fear of being turned into unskilled laborers making $7.25 an hour. When asked if workers who hadn’t made it to the picket line were prepared for a long struggle, possibly dragging into weeks and even months, we were told “they have to. This is a fight for their jobs and their livelihoods. They don’t have a choice.” In the mean time, workers plan to continue with their round-the-clock 24-hour pickets.”

For their part, the Utility Workers Union of America negotiators have agreed to hold talks with management, following pressure from Democratic Party politicians. With the possibility of union-busting – and therefore a loss of a major dues base for union tops – hanging in the air, the bureaucracy will be keen to stitch up a deal and get the employees back to work as soon as possible. To defeat such a sell-out, workers will need to organise on a rank-and-file basis, and reach out to the wider NYC working class for solidarity.

The Rebirth of International Workers’ Day

Ever since five revolutionaries were killed by the state of Illinois back in 1886, May Day – or International Workers’ Day – has been a day of working class demonstrations and resistance. In a sense we do this to commemorate those taken from us by the American authorities, but more than that, we do it to assert that we are still alive and kicking against the system which enslaves us. We mourn the dead, but we also fight like hell for the living.

Of course, there have been peaks and troughs during those one hundred and twenty-five years, but no trough has been quite so deep as the one we have been stuck in for perhaps a generation now. Certainly in the wealthiest nations, May Day has been limited to A to nowhere trudges followed by boring speeches from bureaucrats and ‘left’ politicians on the one hand, and maybe fun, but generally nonconstructive outbreaks of smashing stuff on the other.

Nowhere has May Day been buried further below ground than in its US birthplace, where May 1st has been a presidentially-designated ‘Loyalty Day‘ since 1958. However, US activism is unrecognisable from even a year ago, thanks to the outbreak of the Occupy movement last summer. Though there are actions and demonstrations in almost every nation around the world, America is perhaps the epicentre of resistance today. This is fitting, since America is also the epicentre of global financial oppression.

There are May Day events in every major US city, as Occupy relaunches itself for the spring. Almost inevitably, banks are the main target, with demonstrators trying to shut down branches in New York and Chicago. Foreclosure (repossessions) has also been targeted, with actions planned in many locations.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the demonstrations has been the increasing focus on work – and abstinence from it. At its best (see for instance this solidarity with nurses in Oakland), such actions offer the possibility of forging – or rather rediscovering – the intrinsic link between the working class movement and all other sites of struggle. This is the tradition in which the Haymarket martyrs stood, and indeed it is the tradition which – in a world of globalised austerity and globalised dissent – can bring down the whole damned system.

Chicago Factory Occupiers Face ‘Serious’ Challenge

Workers and supporters rallying outside the factory last night

In 2008, two hundred and sixty workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors occupied their factory, after the company sacked them at the moment’s notice, and offered no redundancy payments. Over a week, the Republic case became emblematic of blue collar workers paying for others’ mistakes, and the occupation became a media cause célèbre. Then President Elect Barack Obama was embarrassed into raising the issue, and Michael Moore later highlighted their action in his film Capitalism: A Love Story. The workers eventually won significant severance packages, and the new owners – Serious Materials – pledged to rehire them.

Three years and two months later, it turns out that Serious Materials only rehired seventy-five of the occupiers, and Serious too are now planning to close down the factory. The news broke yesterday, and so sixty of the experienced campaigners began another sit-in, locking themselves in the cafeteria. However, unlike in 2008, they had a ready made support network to call on – in the shape of Occupy Chicago. Over the next hours, occupiers and Occupiers mobilised over Twitter, and a large crowd soon assembled at the plant.

Tonight, representatives from the United Electrical union are claiming victory, after Serious agreed to keep operations going for ninety days, with a view to selling on the business yet again.

But if this is a victory, so far it is only a very marginal one. As Serious declared in their original statement:

Ongoing economic challenges in construction and building products, collapse in demand for window products, difficulty in obtaining favorable lease terms, high leasing and utility costs and taxes and a range of other factors unrelated to labor costs, have compelled Serious to cease production at the Chicago facility”

Given the current state of the both the US and global economies, these conditions will likely be very similar – or even worse – three months from now. The relatively small proportion of the Republic workers rehired by Serious in 2009 was an indication that in an economic depression, it is necessary for industrial capitalists to drastically ‘downsize’ – that is, attack jobs, wages and conditions – if they are to maintain or increase their profitability.

It seems quite likely that no buyer will be forthcoming by the end of May. But if one does come forward, they will surely want to further increase the rate of exploitation at the factory. If so, yesterday’s showdown could be a mere dress rehearsal for struggles to come.

The Syrian Civil War and the Media Propaganda Offensive

‘Free Syrian Army’ soliders just over the border from Turkey in December

The ‘Free Syrian Army‘ – the so-called ‘rebel’ group armed and funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is involved in a violent insurgency against the Syrian government. That is not just my opinion, it is the view of the Arab League observer mission sent into the country to gather evidence against the ruling Assad regime. But when reports didn’t fit the political agenda, the League pulled the plug on the mission, and the Syrian government was subtlely blamed.

Of course, you don’t hear anything of the mission’s report on BBC or other corporate news sources. Instead, Assad is portrayed as leading an indiscriminate slaughter in the ‘rebel’ stronghold of Homs. Today, BBC reported that “15 people had died as tanks and artillery continued to bombard the city of Homs”. It didn’t mention how many were on each side, or even that there are sides. The implication was that the Syrian government had done all the killing.

And maybe they had. After all, Assad is a brutal dictator, and he does carry out atrocities against the Syrian people. But then we are now almost a year into an armed insurgency, so how do we expect him to react? How would David Cameron react if ‘rebels’ armed by Norway and Denmark were holding Glasgow? In its willingness to cheerlead for NATO ‘intervention’ – i.e. a western-led bloodbath – the oh-so-conservative media finds itself supporting insurrection.

Ten days ago, I described how:

“The past couple of months have seen a sustained effort to create a pretext for attacking Syria. The Syrian government – like the Libyan Gaddafi regime before it – is currently undertaking a brutal crackdown on the “rebel” movement which emerged from last year’s ‘Arab spring’. Of course, the same could be said of the Bahraini government for example, but Bahrain is an American ally. So the Obama administration is using its Arab League proxies – each of which receives large foreign aid and military assistance from US imperialism – to give the coming military intervention a regional popularist colouring.”

Since then, Russia and China have vetoed a UN resolution on Syria, which they feared could provide a figleaf for NATO aggression, much as the equivalent did with Libya last March. In response, the US, UK and French governments denounced Russia and China in the strongest terms, with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague describing the veto as the UN’s “hour of shame”, and rhetorically asking “How many more need to die before Russia and China allow the UN Security Council to act?” Unsurprisingly, no-one asked Hague how many times the US and UK have vetoed UN resolutions on Israeli aggression in Palestine and elsewhere. The answer is nearly fifty.

Foreign Secretary William Hague is guilty of gross hypocrisy over Syria

The NATO aggressors are waiting to make their next political move, but plans for a war on Syria are already well advanced. At the beginning of the week, the Pentagon announced they were beginning an “internal review” of military options, although Ambassador Susan Rice told CNN the focus was on exhausting all other means of change first. This pretence is crucial for the US, because it is relying on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for armed support, and does not want to inflame opposition in client states unneccessarily.

Meanwhile, an unnamed State Department official told the Daily Telegraph that “the international community may be forced to ‘militarise’ the crisis in Syria” and that “the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy.” In turn, the Telegraph surmised that “Any plan to supply aid or set up a buffer zone would involve a military dimension to protect aid convoys or vulnerable civilians.”

But according to Israeli intelligence website Debka-File, both British and Qatari special forces are already “operating with rebel forces under cover in the Syrian city of Homs just 162 kilometers from Damascus… Our sources report the two foreign contingents have set up four centers of operation—in the northern Homs district of Khaldiya, Bab Amro in the east, and Bab Derib and Rastan in the north. Each district is home to about a quarter of a million people.”

In this context, the BBC and other bleeding heart western journalists embedded with the ‘Free Syrian Army’ are therefore providing a vital propaganda role in their deception. They are preparing the public consciousness for yet another ‘humanitarian’ war. As with Libya last year, it is necessary for communists to reject the false choice between the Syrian regime and the so-called ‘rebels’. Instead, we must argue for the interests of the Syrian – and indeed the international – working class.

America, Syria, Iran and the Seeds of World War Three

Attacks on Syria and Iran risk a much wider conflagration

The United States government is aggressively ratcheting-up its drive for global domination, by menacing Syria, Iran and ultimately China. Though on the one hand American politicians speak of hopes for diplomacy, they are preparing for war with all three nations, in a reckless thrust which threatens the future of humanity. But in the minds of imperial planners, the possibility of life’s destruction in a nuclear holocaust is as nothing compared with the need to win on the ‘grand chessboard’.

The US economy has long been in a relative economic decline when compared with the Eurozone and especially the hugely expanding China – a nation frequently labelled “the sweatshop of the world”. For the last fifteen years, the American ruling class has responded with an attempt to use its overwhelming military supremacy to offset its production-based profitability crisis. Wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently Libya have all cut across the material interests of Chinese empire-building. But the global economic turmoil has pushed this imperative into overdrive, creating the strong possibility of a final showdown with China itself, plus Chinese allies such as Russia.

The past couple of months have seen a sustained effort to create a pretext for attacking Syria. The Syrian government – like the Libyan Gaddafi regime before it – is currently undertaking a brutal crackdown on the “rebel” movement which emerged from last year’s ‘Arab spring’. Of course, the same could be said of the Bahraini government for example, but Bahrain is an American ally. So the Obama administration is using its Arab League proxies – each of which receives large foreign aid and military assistance from US imperialism – to give the coming military intervention a regional popularist colouring. In truth however, each regional government is deeply unpopular with broad layers of its population.

The Arab League is reprising its craven role in the run-up to the bloody overthrow of Gaddafi. In particular, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – both of whom are ruled by venal despots – are pushing for a United Nations resolution to lay the basis for a Libya-style military intervention. In such an event, the US would likely be joined by the United Kingdom and France amongst others in bombing the Syrians from the air, allowing the ‘rebel’ forces a clearer path to the capital.

The US and its allies have no particular interest in the natural resources of Syria. Unlike Libya, it is a relatively small player in terms of oil production and reserves. But it is seen as being a friend of Iran – Obama’s ultimate military target for 2012.

The drums of war against Iran have been growing louder again for a couple of years now. On the one hand, this is due to pressure from Israel, which fears a challenge to its regional dominance. But on the other – and more significantly given America’s virtual veto over Israeli policy – the US wants to get its hands on Iran’s oil. Having dramatically failed with a similar adventure in Iraq, the US is playing a deadly game of ‘double or quits’.

For imperial policymakers, China not having Iran’s oil to aid its expansion is almost as important as America having it. Under the Ahmadinejad government, Iran has increased its links to China, and supplies it with a large proportion of its oil.

The Strait of Hormuz is a potential flashpoint

Using the phoney pretext of Iran developing nuclear weapons, which borrows from the Iraq narrative, and which even the US-leaning International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has failed to find any supporting evidence for, the US is allowing Israel to lead a propaganda campaign against Ahmadinejad. There is a grim irony in Israel – a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which illegally maintains a large stockpile of nuclear weaponry – accusing Iran – a signatory which insists its nuclear programme is for civilian use and allows IAEA inspectors in relatively unrestricted. But like Saddam Hussein in 2002/2003, Ahmadinejad is being asked to prove a negative – a theoretical and practical impossibility.

The US is looking to tighten the net on Iran by imposing further sanctions on its oil industry amongst other key economic sectors. In retaliation to this relentless provocation, Iran has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil routinely passes. In response, the US has declared this possibility a “red line”, as if Iran was the primary aggressor. A military buildup is well underway, with the Pentagon modifying its bunker-buster bombs for use on Iranian facilities, and there are discussions about kitting out a transport and docking ship as an “afloat forward staging base” for troops and air assaults. In maybe the grimmest irony in human history, the Wall Street Journal straightfacedly reported a tactical debate amongst US military brass over using a nuclear weapon.

From the perspective of the Chinese ruling class, the US cannot be allowed to continue chipping at its influence. Each time they allow the Americans to get away with it, they come to believe they can get away with more. Iran’s oil is of huge strategic importance to two imperial rivals, and without decisive intervention from the international working class, it could conceivably be the prize which beckons a fight to the death of billions.